Carb Cycling

Carb CyclingAs we know by now, overconsumption of certain carbohydrates can lead to fat gain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases. The biggest issues stem from a diet high in refined or processed carbs, such as breads, cereals, and juices. These foods provide a major influx of sugar and very few nutrients.

One tactic many people use to help moderate their intake of carbs is “carb cycling”. This allows a healthy intake of carbs while avoiding the detrimental effects of the Standard American Diet.

Even though carbs are not essential for life, zero carb diets may have the following side effects:

  • A decrease in performance during very intense activity
  • Heightened cortisol (stress) if the body is forced to produce sugar from protein
  • Individuals with hypothyroidism may experience worsening of symptoms
  • Decreased testosterone as an outcome of heightened cortisol and thyroid down regulation
  • Limited variety in the diet (since fruits, roots and tubers, legumes, and grains are restricted)

These side effects usually only occur long-term (over a year of eating less than 50 grams of carbs a day) and don’t occur in everyone that practices low-carb.

I personally spend 1-2 months every year in ketosis and have never noticed any negative effects.

However, carb cycling avoids all these risks by allowing a regular carb “refeeding”.

The frequency and size of this refeed will vary based upon many factors, such as:

  • Activity level. If you are a hard-charging athlete, you may need daily refeeds. If you exercise regularly, but not at your maximum, a weekly carb meal may be adequate. If you don’t follow an exercise regime, you probably don’t need carbs beyond root vegetables such as carrots and squash.
  • Goals. A recent study examined 2 groups, one high-carb and one low-carb, that ate the same amount of calories and performed the same exercise for one year. The low-carb group lost 8 more pounds of fat than the high-carb group. If you are trying to lose weight, cut back carb intake to the weekends only. Alternatively, if you are trying to gain muscle and perform at a competitive level, increase carbs to at least once a day.
  • Personal genetics. Just as some people can’t drink milk because they are “lactose-intolerant”, some people have a lower tolerance for carbohydrates. To use myself as an example, I don’t respond well to high-carb diets. If I eat carbs at every meal, no matter how healthy they are (sweet potatoes, fruits, etc), I start to gain fat.

Another important concept is that the body can become better or worse at tolerating carbs based on intake levels.

After decades of over-consuming carbs, many people find that their bodies become inefficient at storing carbs in the muscle and liver, and experience fat gain as the sugars are stored in adipose tissue. Once they dial back their carbs, their body relearns how to properly handle a reasonable amount of carbs.

Unfortunately, some people experience the exact opposite! They drop their carbs to such a low level, so consistently, that when they do “carb up”, in a punctuated fashion, their body is not prepared to use the carbs properly.

In this case, increase carbs in a very slow and steady manner…maybe adding 10 – 20 grams (a half of a piece of fruit or a tiny sweet potato) every 5 – 7 days. Increase until carb intake is around 50 – 100 grams a day. This may be a more effective way to train your body to properly metabolize carbohydrates.

As with most things pertaining to nutrition and fitness, you have to experiment to see what works best for you.

Remember to always stick with any change for at least 2 weeks so the body can adjust to the changes. Maintaining a change for 4 weeks would be ideal, but I know immediate results are sought by all.

I would also recommend getting your carbs from healthy sources – avoiding processed cereal grains, and anything else in a package, due to low nutrient content and high anti-nutrient concentration. Legumes may be a good option if they are prepared properly. Stick with what you can find easily in nature – berries, fruits, roots, and potatoes.

Best of luck finding your optimal fat and carb fuel mixture! Feel free to contact me directly if you want a more specific structuring!

What is Metabolism?

Wikipedia states that it “is the set of life-sustaining chemical transformations within the cells of a living organism”. A more common definition would include how our body uses calories to gain, maintain, or lose weight, along with digestion and absorption of nutrients.

It is important to note that metabolism is not a static thing that exists in some specific area of the body. Rather, it is a means for the body to regulate its own existence and ensure its survival.

A common misconception is that our metabolism will stay constant and we can merely decrease calories to lose weight or increase calories to gain weight. Although this may work for a time, ultimately, the body will alter its metabolism to adjust to the changes.

I see this most common with individuals trying to lose weight. They drop calories significantly, for such a long period of time, with no return to healthy intake levels that a “starvation response” ensues. The body panics and slows its metabolism, making the new calorie intake level its maintenance level, thereby preventing further weight loss.

This same process occurs if someone is over-training. Their body adjusts to the stimulus. Their central nervous system becomes overwhelmed from fueling workouts with adrenaline. The body holds onto weight to ensure self-preservation. And it even sacrifices functions of health regulatory systems, such as the immune system.

Hence most exercisers or dieters will lose a few pounds the first few weeks but pretty quickly plateau.

This also happens if an individual is consuming excess calories to gain weight. If they eat more calories, more frequently, metabolism will increase. Also, the body temperature will rise in an attempt to burn the extra calories.

The body is a highly adaptive system and life has one overarching goal – to maintain its existence and proliferation. Drastic changes, whether weight gain or weight loss, cannot always be caused by simply picking a new caloric intake level. They require a dynamic way of structuring activity and nutrition to convince the body to work towards the changes you want.

Another issue that many people overlook when discussing metabolism, is the thermic effect of different foods.

Every macronutrient (fats, carbs, and proteins) requires different levels of energy from the body to be processed internally.

About 30% of the calories from protein are used during digestion alone. About 10% of the calories from carbohydrates are used to process and store them as fuel. And about 5% of the calories from fat are burned during processing.

To simplify this, if you eat 100 calories of chicken, your body is only netting about 70 calories. If you eat 100 calories of rice, you are ingesting 90 calories. Eating 100 calories of olive oil will result in about 95 calories.

This is one reason so many people experience easy weight loss when they focus on consuming enough protein – their body is naturally burning more calories before it even has a chance to put the protein to use. Also, protein will be far more filling, thus eliminating cravings caused by high carbohydrate consumption.

The most effective way to lose fat or gain muscle would be to structure caloric intake in a step-like fashion.

Let’s assume an individual needs 2,000 a day calories to maintain their weight.

Maybe for two weeks they shoot for 1,700 – 1,800 calories a day. The next two weeks they drop to 1,500 – 1,700 calories a day. Then on the fifth work, return to your maintenance level around 2,000 calories a day. Repeat this cycle, recalculating maintenance calories every 5 – 10 lbs, until you reach your goal.

During this process, feel free to step on the scale, at the same time of day and same day of the week, and note changes on a weekly basis. Shoot for half a pound of fat loss a week…although one pound will be manageable for individuals that have more to lose.

To be honest, I’m not actually an enormous fan of the weighing and measuring approach. I find it develops certain neurosis and an obsession with arbitrary numbers. If you performance is improving, your blood work is good, and your clothes fit better, the specific numbers on a scale or calories on a plate are irrelevant.

This way of structuring caloric intake is similar to the theory of periodization in training. Over the course of a few weeks or months, slowly increase the intensity before taking a recovery week, allowing the mind and body to prepare for another period of improvement.

Track your progress, make changes if things stagnate, or stay the course if you are succeeding.

So, if you’ve been consuming 800 calories for months, and wonder why you’re not losing weight, it may be that your metabolic rate has decreased.

Take a few weeks of eating at maintenance to allow your metabolism to reset, and then give this calorie cycling a try!metabolism

Epidemiological Studies

I spend hours every day reading studies, articles, and researching health-related matters. When I find a new publication or exploration of a topic, I get excited to dive in. That being said, some studies and articles are more useful than others.

One type of study that is used frequently to make health claims and guide public policy is an “epidemiological study”. Epidemiology is the study of a set population, or group of people, to develop correlations or inferences.

The problem is that these do not prove anything. When we find a strong correlation between factors, we should use that as a starting point to conduct further research. An epidemiological study, by itself, should never be the basis for making health policies.

Let me give some examples.

Epidemiology suggests that soy is a healthy incorporation in a diet. This is due to the fact that Asian countries consume high amounts of soy on a regular basis and don’t experience the same health problems as Western nations.

However, no other factors are taken into account.

The soy that Asians consume has not been genetically modified to the same extent as ours, nor has it been grown in soils depleted of minerals. Also, most Asian dishes use fermented soy or the bean in its natural state.

Asian cultures consume more wild-caught fish (high in anti-inflammatory omega-3s), sea vegetables (loaded with vitamins and minerals), and opt for white rice, with less anti-nutrients and gut-damaging proteins than typical “heart-healthy” whole grains such as wheat and oatmeal.

Historically, Asians don’t consume as much processed food as Americans. They don’t cook in corn or canola oil, they don’t have packaged foods at every meal, and they don’t go out to eat as often.

And finally, they are far more active – walking, biking, and taking the stairs as part of daily life.

Because of these factors, we cannot confidently say that the consumption of soy in Asian countries is the cause of their better health.

When we look at soy mechanistically, we find phytoestrogens that have the potential to skew hormone levels, leading to fat-storage and growth of cancer cells. It is extremely high in inflammatory omega-6s. Take into consideration our growing practices, extensive refinement process, and consumption of soy byproducts, and soy consumption in the US no longer seems as safe.

Another example of epidemiology lacking substance:

In March of this year, there was a headline stating: “Animal protein-rich diets could be as harmful to health as smoking”. These news reports were based upon two studies: one epidemiological study of over 6000 adults and one study of mice in a laboratory.

The results of these studies suggested that a high protein diet (over 20% of calories) was “positively associated with diabetes-related mortality”. When you look at the numbers, one person in the “high-protein” group (consisting of over 1000 individuals) died from diabetes.

The lead researcher running this study owns a plant-derived protein supplement company…explaining the claim that only animal-protein is dangerous.

Some other issues:

There was no way to control for protein quality. There has never been a study showing negative outcomes from consumption of wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, or eggs from pasture-raised chickens.

The mice that experienced growth of cancer tumors were implanted with melanoma cells before the study began. Plus, the study found that high protein consumption was “not associated with all-cause, CVD, or cancer mortality”. Therefore, the protein-cancer correlation was in fact disproved.

Finally, diet was self-reported. The average participant reported consuming 1,800 calories a day…30% lower than the national average. This suggests major under-reporting.

So, even though the study was riddled with flaws, and actually found no increased risk from animal-protein consumption, the results were phrased to dissuade individuals from consuming meat.

To get back to my original point – epidemiology is used too often to prove a pre-existing belief, promote a political agenda, or increase profits.

By itself, epidemiology is no different than trying to claim that the number of birds flying over a particular region somehow determines cancer rates in that area.

Certainly we should use any research tactic available to ask questions and form a hypothesis…but ultimately, we need to examine issues in every way possible.

Once we’ve investigated mechanisms, done cohort studies and some “food-diary” studies with pictures, it’s time to form a hypothesis and conduct a blinded, crossover, metabolic ward trial to draw some real conclusions!
correlation

Homemade Ice Cream!

Has everyone tried replacing canola and corn oil with coconut oil after my post last week? Your arteries and inflammation levels will thank you! Haha.

This week, let’s use a coconut product to make homemade ice cream!

One of the most amazing things about thoroughly steeping yourself in nutritional knowledge is the ability to make any dish healthy.

I have been eating homemade ice cream every weekend night and am still able to lose about a quarter to half a pound of fat a week (summertime is when I focus on leaning out).

Feel free to adjust the amounts of the following ingredients as you see fit.

  1. Pour 4 tablespoons grass-fed heavy cream, 1/3 cup coconut milk, and 2 tablespoons of raw almond butter into a blender. Add half an avocado and a banana.
  2. Optional ingredients to add while blending: a teaspoon of honey (I find the banana is sweet enough); half a scoop of chocolate protein powder (to bump up the protein content and add a sweet, chocolate-flavor); shaved raw cacao (I avoid the stimulants in cacao if eating the ice cream at night).
  3. Pour into a bowl and place in the freezer. Whip the mixture with a fork every 30 minutes. After about 2 hours, it should be the consistency of ice cream.
  4. Top with berries and / or crushed macadamia nuts.

That’s it! No need for an expensive ice cream maker or sacrificing your long-term health for store-bought ice cream.

Compared to the store-bought versions, this will be loaded with essential healthy fats (Omega-3, Conjugated Linoleic Acid, and Lauric Acid), all improving cardiovascular function and decreasing inflammation.

The avocado and berries will also provide a substantial amount of vitamins and minerals. One serving will provide 25-50% the daily requirements of Vitamin C, E, B6, K, Folate, Choline, Calcium, Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Magnesium, Potassium, Copper, and Manganese.

If you use protein powder you will also be getting important amino acids, improving performance, recovery, and mental functioning.

Clearly this meal offers quite a few beneficial nutrients, but check out the problematic elements, found in commercial ice cream, it does not contain:

Casein. The primary protein in dairy that causes allergic reactions and can damage the gut. (If someone has a life-threatening dairy allergy, I would recommend forgoing the heavy cream as it may contain traces of casein.)

Lactose. The sugar found in milk that makes “lactose intolerant” individuals sick after consuming most dairy products.

Gluten. Plenty of ice cream brands still contain gluten. If you recall, gluten has the ability to affect every cell in the body and cause hundreds of different health issues.

Corn Syrup and other sweeteners. The sugar in this dish comes solely from banana and berries, and occurs with over 20 grams of fiber, thereby slowing the release of the natural sugars.

Artificial Ingredients. Most ice cream contains various artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. Many of these have been strongly correlated with cancer and neurological disorders.

Some of these ingredients are used to increase shelf life while others are used to decrease production costs (honey costs more than corn syrup and coconut milk more than dairy).

But, other ingredients are used to cause over-consumption, thereby increasing a company’s sales. For example, artificial sugars, gluten, and liquid dairy can easily override our body’s natural hunger signals.

I know from experience that I can easily eat over 1,000 calories of store-bought ice cream and still be hungry. However, when I make this recipe with a full avocado and more nuts, it adds up to less than 800 calories…and it is a challenge to finish. When consuming this much fiber and naturally occurring healthy fat, your satiety levels cannot be manipulated.

I would not recommend this as a daily meal for someone trying to lose weight as it does combine a fair amount of healthy fats and natural sugars…

But, if you are cleaning up your diet and afraid that you’ll never be able to enjoy ice cream again – don’t fear! With enough creativity in the kitchen, anything is possible!

Enjoy!

Coconut Oil

CoconutDue to the positive feedback on my recent post about gluten, I decided to tackle another food that is very popular right now: coconut oil.

Coconut oil is entering the mainstream at the moment because it has numerous health benefits and is one of the best oils to cook with.

Coconut oil is pressed from the flesh of a coconut. It is a solid, white substance below room temperature and turns into a clear liquid as temperatures rise over 70° F.

The consistency changes because it is over 90% saturated fat. Remember, saturated merely means that it is completely stable chemically. It won’t go rancid when stored or oxidize when cooked. These properties also hold true after consumption – it is the least likely, of all fats, to oxidize in the blood…oxidization being a precipitating factor in cardiovascular disease.

Not only is the fat content of coconut the safe saturated variety, but 66% of it is in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).

MCTs are interesting because they don’t require digestion to be converted to fuel. Therefore, it is very unlikely they will be stored as fat. They also ramp up the body’s ability to burn calories and fat. For these reasons, MCTs are often used by individuals trying to lose weight.

MCTs aren’t only a useful energy source for those looking to reduce body fat. They also produce ketones which are extremely therapeutic fuel for the brain. Ketones can protect against, and improve symptoms from, neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and epilepsy.

All fats are made up of many different acids. One such acid that makes up most of the saturated fat in coconut oil is Lauric Acid (usually only found in breast milk). Lauric acid helps increase HDL in the body, once again protecting against cardiovascular disease. Finally, lauric acid has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties, thereby protecting the body in many other ways too.

Due to the high concentration of chemically-stable fats in coconut oil, it is the most useful oil for high temperature cooking (above 300°F).

Vegetable and nut oils are predominately polyunsaturated fat, prone to oxidization when heated. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat which is still not optimal for cooking.

Oils that are not very stable (poly and mono fats) will sacrifice their phytosterols in an attempt to prevent oxidization. Since coconut oil is almost purely saturated fat, its phytosterol content will remain even after cooking.

Life cannot exist without sterols – animals have cholesterol while plants contain phytosterols. It is believed that phytosterols improve cardiovascular health and act as antioxidants.

The oil certainly has a coconut-scent but most people find that the flavor dissipates quickly while cooking and has no effect on the taste of the final meal.

Coconut oil is often used as a moisturizer, lip balm, and in soap or other hygiene products.

Coconuts provide many other amazing foods too!

Coconut flour is an excellent alternative for sugar-laden grain flours. Coconut water is a more balanced, natural form of a sports drink. Coconut milk is a perfect substitute for animal milk. You can even buy coconut butter (pure raw coconut flesh) to spread on other foods…although it’s so rich and tasty that I’ve even eaten it straight out of the jar! And of course, you could just buy a whole coconut and make all these products yourself.

Now that we know the value of such a food, it’s time to throw out the rancid vegetable oils, save olive oil for salads, and start using coconut oil for your cooking endeavors!

Oh No! Steroids!

A few months ago, we looked at how to naturally boost testosterone levels, decreasing body fat and improving health and performance. I ended that post with a cliffhanger, mentioning a final technique to raise testosterone: direct hormone supplementation.

Before I dive into the topic of steroid use, let me first mention that I never recommend steroids and, to my knowledge, never trained an athlete that used them.

That being said, steroids are not the dangerous drug they are made out to be.

I can’t, in one post, dissect the entire history and politics of why the public fears steroids. Instead I’ll list the top myths and then the risks of hormone supplementation.

Myth 1: Steroids are dangerous to the body.

From a toxicological standpoint, anabolic steroids are one of the safest “drugs”. The risk of overdose is almost non-existent, considering the amount necessary to see an effect. Alcohol can cause inflammation and atrophy in almost every cell of the body, whereas steroids improve growth and function of most cells.

There are reports that steroids cause unfavorable blood pressure or cholesterol levels but, as with everything, all factors need to be taken into account. Is the user a major health-nut looking for one more way to boost their performance? Or is it someone that wants to increase size and strength without having to pay as much attention to nutrition and other lifestyle factors?

However, if someone abuses steroids (takes too much, too frequently) they can experience acne growth, liver and kidney damage, and decreased natural testosterone production.

Myth 2: Steroids cause violent outbursts.

If you look at those that are likely to use steroids, they are usually hard-charging athletes with high levels of testosterone and a type A personality. When their personality traits are combined with even more testosterone, and an increase in size and strength, arguments, physical altercations, or other unfortunate events can result.

Myth 3: Steroids cause addiction.

Anabolic steroids are less dependence forming than almost every other substance, including tobacco and alcohol. However, steroids are effective, so when someone stops using them and sees a drop-off in progress, they may become discouraged and return to using them.

Myth 4: Steroids cause suicide.

The number of people taking steroids, that have committed suicide, is miniscule. However, when it does happen, it makes an attention-grabbing headline for news sources.

Many people taking steroids may also take other drugs, including anti-depressants, which affect emotions, thereby increasing risk of suicide.

Most of the fears of steroids are caused by abuse (as opposed to use), the individual taking them, and organizations (the media or government agencies) vilifying or sensationalizing particular issues.

The one last common complaint is that “using steroids is cheating”.

However, it is naïve to think that any top athlete is not enhancing their performance or trying to get a foot up on their competition by any means necessary.

Why does each sport have a hundred top performers and then thousands of good players? Why does the athlete working just as hard not achieve the same results?

Sure, genetics and luck may play a role…but the fact is, when millions of dollars are at stake, in the entertainment industry, individuals will seek out ways to boost their performance and surpass competitors.

If your favorite athlete is doing things that no human has done before, chances are they have found a way to enhance their performance through supplementation.

My solution for this issue is to simply create two leagues – one that is tested and one that is untested. This exists in the world of powerlifting and bodybuilding. There are “raw” or natural competitions that have strict testing procedures and other competitions with no testing requirements.

So, to summarize, the risks of steroid use are:

1.)    Decreased testosterone production. Depending on the dose and length of time, normal levels may not return after discontinuation.

2.)    Over-use, or abuse, can damage multiple organs and result in many dangerous outcomes, both physical and mental.

3.)    If an individual is prone to addiction, they risk becoming dependent upon steroids.

The main benefit of steroid use is an increase lean body mass, decrease in body fat, and improvements in health and performance.

A great quote I heard recently:

“If you have to take steroids in high school to play college football then that’s going to be the end of your career. If you have to take steroids in college to make professional football then you’re going to have a short career. If you don’t have to [take steroids] until you’re at a professional level, then you’re probably going to have a long career.”

Again, I am not recommending steroids, and personally don’t have much interest in them. I am much more interested in finding out what my body can do on its own. But we need to avoid an emotional, knee-jerk response and condemn the whole concept simply because our government has put in place puritanical drug laws.

Even with steroids, there is no substitute for smart training, clean eating, and a healthy lifestyle!

Vitamin Recommendations

Growing up, I took a Centrum multi-vitamin every day. If I was coming down with a cold, I would take supplemental vitamin C. When I first got serious about my health, switching to a vegetarian diet for a couple years, I would take Animal Pak, which had 11 pills per serving.

Currently, the only supplement I take and recommend to everyone is vitamin D.

What changed?

First, I learned that vitamin supplementation doesn’t prevent the “free radical damage” we once thought. It’s actually the phytochemicals, in fruits in vegetables, joined with vitamins that protect against DNA damage.

Second, the free radical damage that these supplemental vitamins do effectively prevent is produced by exercise. But, it turns out that our body needs free radical signaling post workout to improve. By mega-dosing with vitamins post workout, we are blunting our bodies’ ability to adapt to exercise.

Finally, studies show that high supplementation of vitamins B, C, E, and A (beta-carotene) increase mortality, sometimes by as much as 22%.

So why do I recommend vitamin D?

Vitamin D affects almost every function of the human body. Deficiencies can contribute to literally dozens of different diseases and conditions.

What about doctors or studies suggesting that vitamin D doesn’t affect health?

In all studies, subjects were given 400 – 800 IUs of vitamin D a day. A mere 30 minutes of sunlight provides 20,000 IUs. Therefore, it’s no surprise that a 25th of a natural dose wasn’t able to increase blood levels or affect health changes.

Trace amounts of Vitamin D can be found in certain foods. One egg yolk will contain about 20 IUs while 4 ounces of salmon may have up to 400 IUs.

If you want to be certain whether you need to supplement with vitamin D, get a vitamin D blood test, known as a 25 hydroxy.

Make sure your doctors tell you the actual numbers though! Most doctors won’t show any concern if your levels are between 20 and 55 ng/ml. This is usually enough to prevent rickets or bone softening, but optimal blood levels are in the 50 to 80 ng/ml range.

Depending how low your levels are, you may need to supplement with 5,000 to 20,000 IUs of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) a day.

Keep in mind that vitamin D is fat soluble and converted by cholesterol so it needs to be taken with a fatty meal that contains a healthy amount of dietary cholesterol.

In the summer, I take 2,000 to 5,000 IUs a day. In the winter, I take 5,000 to 10,000 IUs a day. I take it with breakfast, usually consisting of 4 to 6 whole eggs.

These specific recommendations assume that you are already eating a healthy diet (full of local and naturally raised meats, vegetables, and fruits) and avoid, or at least limit, grains and processed foods.

The digestion of carbohydrates, particularly grains, uses a massive amount of B vitamins, found most abundantly in meat. If you diet is too high in the former and too low in the latter, you may need a moderate dose of vitamin B supplements. I still would recommend against mega-dosing though.

There are certain other situations that may require additional supplementation but I’ll discuss those in a different post.

As you can tell, our understanding of supplements has changed greatly over the last decade. It used to seem so simple to merely pop a pill and have 100% of your vitamins and minerals for the day…but we now know that there is no substitute for a natural and varied diet.

Hope all this helps – both in terms of health and saving a few dollars on vitamins!